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Kuchen: A Dessert With History

Updated: May 7, 2021

Kuchen is German for “cake,” but that doesn’t really hint at its rich, addictive goodness. It’s more like a thick custard poured into a crust of sweet dough. It’s traditionally cut in triangular wedges, like pie.

In Germany, an afternoon break for coffee, cake and conversation was (and still is) a tradition. When German speakers immigrated to the U.S., many took the afternoon kaffeeklatsch with them. Kuchen — and the conversation it sparked — was an important link to home. It kept people connected to their culture, in the same way that German church services and German newspapers kept them connected to their language.

German-speaking groups, including those from the Rhineland and the Germans from Russia (who immigrated from what’s now Russia and Ukraine) built tight knit communities all over America, including in my adopted home state of North Dakota. North Dakota actually has one of the largest German from Russia communities in the nation and German is still identified as the most common ethnic group in the state.

Even though having an ancestor of German descent was (and still is) really common, German speakers found themselves the targets of suspicion and discrimination during World War I and World War II. Even those who had been in the United States for generations, lifelong American citizens and veterans who had fought for their country (or had relatives who had) still found themselves viewed with hostility by their long time neighbors. Speaking German was frowned upon and even made illegal in North Dakota.

Sadly, even the quickest scan of newspaper articles from the past reveals that prejudice against immigrants and those who proudly retain elements of a minority language or culture isn’t a new thing. It’s actually remarkably consistent. The same silly arguments against “those people” show up decade after decade, although the targeted community shifts to serve as a scapegoat for whatever the majority of people seem to be most afraid of.

Close-knit groups often keep their traditions in the community (especially when they’ve been persecuted), which explain why an average American might have no idea what kuchen is — even if they’re of German descent and even if they, like me, live just hours away from regions where kuchen is so ubiquitous that you can find it in gas stations. It’s one of those things that is often hidden in plain sight.

Whether you like it creamy, savory or sweet — kuchen (pronounced “coo-gen” in North Dakota, which sounds pretty different than my German language app’s pronunciation), can be just about anything you want it to be. Some old timers like it savory, with rich dry cottage cheese (kasekuchen), sauerkraut or onions. Prune, dried apricot and raisin are also hearty, traditional kuchen varieties.

Kuchen can also be delicate, topped with streusel or slivered almonds. The cinnamon and sugar topped wedding kuchen has the light, creamy appeal of crème brûlée, albeit without the burnt sugar.

Hearty, easily accessible fruits like rhubarb, peach, apple and blueberry show up on restaurant menus most often. But you can also find sweet options like chocolate chip.

My favorite chocolate chip kuchen is from Grandma’s Kuchen in Ashley, North Dakota, deep in the heart of Germans from Russia County. Grandma’s Kuchen is a North Dakota State Fair champion and Lois Vander Wal makes 18 different kuchen flavors, from classic cottage cheese to decadent chocolate varieties. I found Lois’ kuchen after readers in the know directed me to the freezer section of the Ampride convenience store in Lawrence Welk’s hometown of Strasburg, North Dakota. (You guys know everything!)

Grandma’s Kuchen is my pick for the best kuchen crust in North Dakota. (I know that sounds weird, but there is a big difference between crusts!) It’s dense and sweet and I’d eat it all by itself. (Okay, that might be weird.)

While you’re in the neighborhood, check out the kuchen at Ashley Super Valu. It’s a top-secret recipe and they make a dozen different flavors, including peach and blueberry. If you want to dive deeper into the whole Germans from Russia experience, visit the meat section. They sell traditional, house-made sausage too.

LaVonne’s Cheesebutton Factory Plus in Bismarck offers 15 kuchen flavors, including raisin, pear and apple and a particularly good strawberry rhubarb, at grocery stores, gas stations (yep, for real) and summer events across North Dakota. If you like a super creamy, custard-y kuchen, this is a good choice for you.

It gets a little tricker to find kuchen outside of the Germans from Russia triangle in south-central North Dakota, but it can be done. You just have to know where to look.

Karen Schwandt’s grandmother’s recipe is the heart of Karen’s Kuchens, located in Larimore. She offers a mindboggling 68 kuchen flavors, from local favorites like juneberry kuchen to more exotic options tropical pineapple and toasted coconut. Everything I’ve tried has been very good. And Karen is an exceptionally sweet lady.

You can find her kuchen at grocery stores across North Dakota year round and at the Town Square Farmers Market in Grand Forks during the summer. Best of all, you can order Karen’s Kuchens online!

You can also find kuchen on the menu at Charlie’s Main Street Cafe, a cute little hometown place in Minot, North Dakota that I’ve written about here before. The peach and the blueberry (both pictured) are excellent. (That’s regular pie on the right.)

If you want to make kuchen at home, I recommend this recipe from A Prairie Californian (a.k.a. Jenny Dewey Rohrich). She married into a family of Germans from Russia and this is her mother-in-law’s recipe, so you know it’s legit.

What about you? Have you ever tried kuchen? Why or why not?

What’s your favorite kuchen flavor? Where do you find the best kuchen in the world? What’s your favorite food-based tradition? How do people in your community connect over food?

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